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Mornington Shire to examine its own links to developer John Woodman

The Age logo The Age 3 days ago Royce Millar

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The fallout from the Casey land scandal in Melbourne’s south-east has widened further as the neighbouring municipality of Mornington launches a probe of its own planning history.

On Tuesday, Mornington Peninsula Shire mayor Sam Hearn confirmed council chief executive John Baker would oversee a review of planning applications and decisions involving John Woodman, the developer at the centre of the Casey scandal.

He said the revelations of allegedly serious corruption at Casey had been a “kick in the guts” toVictorian local government, and had tarnished the reputation of all councillors and politicians.

“We want to show that we are here for the good of the whole community, not a small sector of property developers,” said Cr Hearn. "Even if that means going back and exposing historical situations and occurrences that weren’t up to standard.”

a person standing next to a body of water: John  Woodman at his Martha Cove Property. © Supplied John Woodman at his Martha Cove Property. a man standing in a room: An IBAC surveillance photo of Casey councillor Sam Aziz (left) and developer John Woodman (right) at a Subway restaurant in April 2018. © IBAC An IBAC surveillance photo of Casey councillor Sam Aziz (left) and developer John Woodman (right) at a Subway restaurant in April 2018.

“We want to be seen to be going above and beyond on matters of transparency.”

Confirmation of the Mornington inquiry follows a December decision by another south-east council, Kingston, to conduct a special audit of planning approvals linked to Woodman and associates.

Mr Woodman and his company Watsons Pty Ltd are a central focus of Operation Sandon, the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) probe into the allegedly crooked planning system at Casey.

Over three weeks from mid-November, IBAC heard how, in his bid to win lucrative planning approvals on behalf of clients, Mr Woodman allegedly corrupted Liberal-linked former mayors Sam Aziz and Geoff Ablett with at least $1.2 million in bribes, and showered councillors and state political candidates – including current Labor frontbenchers – with donations.

Mornington will review decisions around projects involving Mr Woodman, his lawyer and planner Megan Schutz – both of whom are based in Mornington – and development company Wolfdene, which is linked to Mr Woodman’s son, Heath.

All the key companies named in the IBAC hearings have also had projects in Mornington Peninsula Shire.

Cr Hearn said he was “fairly comfortable” that the current group of councillors was not “implicated” in any questionable planning decisions. “But I’m also conscious of the deep ties that Mr Woodman has in this area,” he said.

A project of particular interest to the review will be the controversial marina and residential development, Martha Cove at Safety Beach.

The approval process for Martha Cove stretches back to the 1990s and involves both the council and the state government. Mr Woodman was a key figure in the $650 million Martha Cove scheme.

“If we have to go back to the 1990s we will go back to the 1990s,” said Cr Hearn. The Mornington review would cover planning approvals by councillors and those delegated to council staff.

The review will include a historical audit of donations, gifts and hospitality received by councillors and council officers.

Chief executive John Baker said that if the council identified questionable decision-making by either councillors or council officers, it would refer it to relevant agencies, including IBAC where applicable.

Cr Hearn said the review may also end up looking at decisions by state planning ministers through the years.

The council confirmed it would appoint a probity advisor to monitor the internal review

Veteran Mornington councillor David Gill said he had been waiting for a long time for an opportunity to review historic planning at Mornington.  He said he suspected the review would identify questionable planning decisions by either Mornington or the State government.

Cr Gill said he was confident Casey was not the only Victorian council with a less pure planning history.

The Casey IBAC hearings will start again on March 2.

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